The sly playwright Robert O’Hara seems to have multiple intentions in his reality-shifting satire “Barbecue,” now in a wildly entertaining Bay Area premiere at San Francisco Playhouse.
The first act juxtaposes, scene by scene, two American families at a downscale local park (wonderfully grungy set by Bill English).
Both families comprise four adult siblings who are preparing to stage an intervention; the fifth is a violence-prone crackhead and alcoholic who is said to hide razor blades in her teeth.
The families, one black and one white, are mirror images of each other, right down to their names and their personal attributes: bossy Lillie Anne (Anne Darragh and Halili Knox) is the more upscale sibling, the one who organized the intervention; James T (Clive Worsley and Adrian Roberts), in a backwards baseball cap, is the happy-go-lucky family pothead; Marie (Teri Whipple and Kehinde Koyejo) is the trashy drunk of the family, staggering around in cutoffs and high-heeled sandals (amusing costumes by Brooke Jennings) and barfing behind the picnic table; Adlean (Jennie Brick and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) is the phlegmatic sister with breast cancer, addicted to prescription drugs, a cigarette always in hand.
When the designated black sheep, Barbara, nicknamed Zippity Boom (Susi Damilano and Margo Hall), arrives, she’s immediately tied to a pole, gagged and harangued. Lillie Anne’s plan is send her off to a New Age rehab center in Alaska.
The natural inclination is to assume O’Hara wants you to think about ways that these two identical families, seemingly from the same social class, might be perceived differently because of their respective races, all the while laughing at the hilarious (although overwritten and redundant) squabbling among the siblings.
And under multi-tasking Margo Hall’s astute direction, and with fine comic acting all around, it’s easy enough to settle for such a straightforward understanding of the play.
But that’s not all O’Hara has in mind.
Act 2, which is actually a prequel, puts a completely different slant on the proceedings as characters from Act 1 reappear in slightly (or radically) changed guises. Barbara from the black family announces complacently, “I’m not black, I’m a movie star/singer. When you reach my level of fame, race falls away.”
O’Hara peels away the layers of lies that so conveniently fit our expectations, to reveal what may be a hidden truth at the core — or what may instead be one more fundamental, hollow lie.
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 11
Tickets: $20 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org